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From 'Armpit' to 'Jewel'

Lorton Arts Foundation opens Workhouse Arts Center to the public for first tours before construction starts.

Maybe it was the one person wearing a bright orange, newly marked “jailbird” costume, hobnobbing with elected officials while his hands were in cuffs. Maybe it was the woman in period costume holding a sign referring to former President Woodrow Wilson as a Kaiser, next to a log book with Lucy Burns' name when she was interred at the Occoquan Workhouse for “unlawful assembly.”

Whatever it was, a feeling of change swept the saw-dust scented air at the former Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton on Saturday, Sept. 17, as the Lorton Arts Foundation opened its 55-acre campus to the public for the first time.

Inside what used to be the Lorton prison’s gymnasium, gold and purple balloons were tied together across the front of the stage, where members of the Lorton Arts Foundation’s Board of Directors took turns telling the story of how they arrived at this day.

“The gates will be locked after today until the construction is over,” said Sharon Mason, executive arts director for LAF. “This has been a challenge to get to this point because of all the construction, but it’s really good to do this.”

THE WORKHOUSE opened its doors just a few weeks after restoration work began on some of the former cell blocks, which will be transformed into studio and educational space during the first of the Arts Foundation’s three-phase project.

In the second and third phases, according to LAF’s plans, a former commissary will be made into a banquet and events center and other buildings will be adaptively reused as residence lofts, stores, a performing arts center, more studios and, eventually, restaurants.

“This is one example of a truly grassroots effort,” said Tim Sargent, chair of the Laurel Hill Citizens Advisory Committee Adaptive Reuse Panel.

When his group began looking at ways to reuse the existing structures at the former Lorton Prison, Sargent said the Lorton Arts Foundation already had plans in motion for the Workhouse Arts Center.

“One of our first acts after I became chairman of the committee in March 2003 was to support their proposal,” Sargent said, adding that the plans for the Workhouse are the first major adaptive reuse projects to begin at the former prison.

As a member of the Arts Foundation and the Women’s Suffrage Museum planned to be included at the Workhouse, Irma Clifton was one of two people to accept ceremonial silver keys Saturday in appreciation for their dedication to the Workhouse’s rebirth.

“This is what we came up with for this site, a combination of the Occoquan Crafts Festival and the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria,” said Clifton, of the vision for the site’s blending of historic exhibits and artist displays.

Tina Leone, CEO of the Lorton Arts Foundation, praised Clifton’s dedication to preserving the site.

“Irma saved the Workhouse from an uncertain fate,” Leone said. “She is the savior of this place.”

During a short ceremony, Rick Hausler, president of the Arts Foundation’s Board of Directors, pointed to a score board in the back of the gymnasium, the clock reading 0:00, and a score of Home: 25, Guests 1.

“Zero is how much we had in the bank five years ago. The one is the number of millions we raised during the first five years, and the 25 is how much we’ve raised in the past year with the help of our patrons in Fairfax County,” Hausler explained.

The success of the Workhouse will rely, in large, to the continued support of those patrons, he said.

“We are starting the next leg of our journey. When we first began in 2000 or 2001, people were talking about escaping from Lorton and all that went with it,” Hausler said. “This has become one of the greatest turnarounds in Fairfax County’s history. Now people want to escape to Lorton.”

ECHOING HAUSLER'S sentiments, Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) mentioned the change from Lorton’s reputation of being the “armpit” of Fairfax County into one of the fastest growing areas in Northern Virginia.

“You’ve laid out a diamond for all of us, and it will be polished so it shines for the entire region,” Hyland said

As for the man in the orange jumpsuit, Jim Davis offered to be another visual reminder of the Workhouse’s past.

“I grew up around here, and I think this is one of the most remarkable areas,” said Davis, the Mount Vernon District Council's chair for environment and recreation.

Losing the Workhouse and prison structures would have cost Lorton its history, Davis said.

“What they’ve done here is the best thing they could do,” he said. “This is going to be a destination, a place you come out and spend the day. It’s a premiere location.”

As people meandered from the celebration in the former gym, out along the brick pathways joining the dorm and prison halls to examine local artisans and their crafts, Davis said he was happy to see so many people taking advantage of the public tours. He also complimented the Arts Foundation’s board, for its determination to change the face of Lorton.

“These people are smart enough to know how to work together,” he said. “They didn’t let the bureaucracy overwhelm them.”